Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) decided yesterday against a presidential run. While the bulk of the pundits and political press corps expressed surprise, I can’t say that I was shocked. In fact, since December I’ve predicted that Barbour’s presidential race was doomed. When his longtime aide Nick Ayers went to the Pawlenty campaign I was virtually certain Barbour wouldn’t make a run.

I asked a smart Republican adviser who “wins” from Barbour’s departure. The answer: “First, Mrs. Barbour. Tim Pawlenty, then Mitch Daniels.” The adviser added: “Also, the Republican Governors’ Association wins because Barbour can stay focused on it.”

Yes, Mrs. Barbour (like Mrs. Daniels) was none too keen on a presidential race. But it is equally plausible that Barbour assessed his liabilities (on the race issue and on his lobbying career) and the potential for an embarrassing defeat (nothing like getting single digits in Iowa and New Hampshire to damage your speaking career), and decided it wasn’t worth it.

I do concur that Pawlenty is the winner here. The less competition in Iowa, where Pawlenty needs to do well, the better for the former Minnesota governor. And if the name of the game is to become the not-Romney alternative, Pawlenty is helped by a thinned herd of candidates.

Unlike a number of pundits (the same ones shocked by Barbour’s decision) there is no indication that Barbour’s decision will affect Daniels’s calculus. In that regard, Daniels’s hesi­ta­tion could very well become a self-fulfilling prophesy. As Dan Balz reported:

As the time draws nearer, those who know him best see the tension rising as he weighs the political challenges and family trade-offs. “There’s a fight going on inside him that’s pretty rare,” said one adviser who asked not to be identified, in order to speak candidly.

Asked where he was in his thinking, Daniels replied with a laugh, “Oh, muddled.” Then he turned serious: “I don’t want to leave a misimpression. If we get in, we will go all out, and we know a little about how to do that. So reluctance or hesitation about running doesn’t mean we would be a reluctant candidate if we got there.”

This does not sound like a man with the fire in the belly. Moreover, as Rep. Paul Ryan’s star has risen, the voters and activists seeking a serious policy wonk who can go toe-to-toe with Obama have become intrigued by the possibility that Ryan might change his mind and become the unifying, dream candidate for the party.

Barbour’s departure is one more bit of evidence that the conventional wisdom about the GOP presidential primary has been consistently wrong. Sarah Palin would lap the field. The race would be crowded. Mitt Romney is the next in line. The lineup will be set by the spring.

Now, much of that seems downright foolish. It’s late April and the Republicans still don’t have a real front-runner, a final field of candidates or a figure who has captured the imagination of conservatives. Oh, and those potential candidates who so far have steered clear of the race and saved their money are looking smarter every day.